HAVING beheaded Charles I (January 30, 1649), the victorious Puritans faced the problems of constructing a new government and restoring the security of life and property in an England disordered by seven years of civil war. The Rump Parliament—the fifty-six active members that remained of the Long Parliament after “Pride’s Purge” (1648)—proclaimed the supremacy and sufficiency of the Commons, abolished the House of Lords (February 6, 1649) and the monarchy, and nominated as its executive arm a Council of State composed of three generals, three peers, three judges, and thirty members of the House, all Independents—i.e., republican Puritans. On May 19 the Commons officially established the English republic: “England shall hereafter be governed as a Commonwealth, or Free State, by the supreme authority of this nation, the representatives of the people in Parliament, and by such as they shall appoint and constitute as ministers under them for the good of the people.” 1 The republic was not a democracy; the Parliament claimed a democratic base, but the expulsion of Royalist members during the war, and of Presbyterians in the Purge, had “winnowed and sifted it,” said Cromwell, “and brought it to a handful.” 2 In its origin the Parliament had been elected by property owners only; now whole counties were without delegates in the Rump. Its power rested not on the people but on the army. Only the army could protect it from the royalist rebels in England, the Catholic rebels in Ireland, the Presbyterian rebels in Scotland, and the radical rebels in the army itself.
To meet the expenses of the government, and the arrears of pay due to the army, the Rump levied taxes as lavishly as the late King. It proposed to confiscate the property of all who had borne arms for Charles, but in most cases it compromised by taking a fine equal to a part—from one tenth to one half—of the capital value of the estate. Many young nobles, facing impoverishment in England, migrated to America and founded aristocratic families like the Washingtons, the Randolphs, the Madisons, the Lees.* Some royalist leaders were executed, some were imprisoned. Even so, the royalist movement remained troublesome, for royalist sentiment predominated among the people. The execution of the King had turned him from a tax collector into a martyr. Ten days after that regicide a book appeared under the title of Eikon Basilike—i.e., a royal portrait. It had been written by John Gauden, a Presbyterian minister, but it purported to be the thoughts and feelings of Charles as set down by his own hand shortly before his death. Some of it may have been elaborated from notes left by the King. 3 In any case the picture presented by it was that of a tenderhearted ruler who had actually been defending England against the tyranny of a merciless oligarchy. Within a year the book sold thirty-six editions; it was translated into five languages, and not all the thunder of Milton’s Eikonoklastes (1649) could cancel its effect. It shared in promoting a public reaction against the new government, and encouraged the royalist agents who in every county of England began at once to agitate for the restoration of the Stuart dynasty. The Council of State met the movement with widespread and efficient espionage, and the prompt arrest of leaders who might have organized a revolt.
At the other extreme a minority of the populace and a large part of the army demanded a more thorough, some a socialist, democracy. The sky rained radical pamphlets; Colonel John Lilburne alone produced a hundred; Milton, at this stage, was not a poet but a pamphleteer. Lilburne attacked Cromwell as a tyrant, an apostate, a hypocrite. One writer complained that “you shall scarce speak to Cromwell about any thing but he will lay his hand on his breast, elevate his eyes, and call God to record. He will weep, howl, and repent, even while he doth smite you under the fifth rib.” 4 Another pamphleteer asked: “We were ruled before by King, Lords, and Commons, now by a General, Court Martial, and Commons; and we pray you, what is the difference?” 5 The new government felt compelled to censure press and pulpit sternly. In April, 1649, Lilburne and three others were arrested for issuing two pamphlets that described England as in “new chains.” The army clamored for their release, and their women threatened Cromwell’s life if any harm came to the prisoners. From prison Lilburne sent to his printer a defiant Impeachment of High Treason against Cromwell and Ireton. In October the four writers were tried in a cause célèbre that drew thousands of people about the court. Lilburne challenged the judges, and appealed to a jury. When all four were acquitted there went up from the crowd “such a loud and unanimous shout as is believed was never heard in Guildhall, which lasted for about half an hour without intermission, which made the judges for fear turn pale.” 6 For two years Lilburne was the hero of the army. In 1652 he was banished; he returned in 1653, was again arrested, was again acquitted (August, 1653); he was kept in prison nevertheless. In 1655 he was released; in 1657 he died, aged forty-three.
Some “Levellers” went beyond Lilburne and democracy to call for a more equal distribution of goods. Why, they asked, should there be rich and poor? Why should some starve while the rich engrossed the land? In April, 1649, a “prophet” named William Everard led four men to St. George’s Hill in Surrey; they took possession of some unoccupied land, dug the earth, planted seed, and invited recruits; some thirty other “Diggers,” as they came to be called, joined them, and (said a report to the Council of State) “they threaten the neighbors that they will shortly make them all come up to the hills and work.” 7 Haled before Sir Thomas Fairfax, captain general of the army, Everard explained that his followers proposed to respect private property, “only to meddle with what is common and untilled, and make it fruitful,” but they hoped “that the time will suddenly be when all men shall willingly come in and give up their lands and estates, and submit to this Community of Goods.” 8 Fairfax released the men as harmless fanatics. One of them, Gerrard Winstanley, continued the movement with a manifesto (April 26, 1649) entitled The True Leveller’s Standard Advanced: “In the beginning the great Creator Reason made the earth a common treasury for beasts and men”; but then man, falling into blindness, became a greater slave to his own kind than the beasts of the field to him; the earth was bought and sold and hedged in by rulers, and was kept in the possession of a few. All landlords are thieves. Only when common ownership is restored will crime and hatred cease. 9 In The Law of Freedom (1652) Winstanley begged the Commonwealth to establish a society in which there would be no buying or selling, no lawyers, no rich or poor; all to be compelled to work till forty, then to be absolved from toil; the franchise to be open to all adult males; marriage to be a civil ceremony, and divorce to be free. 10 The Diggers abandoned their scheme, but their propaganda entered into the memory of the English poor, and perhaps crossed the Channel to France and the sea to America.
Cromwell, himself a property owner and well versed in the nature of man, put no trust in these ideals of common ownership, or even of adult suffrage. In the confusion inevitable after the violent overthrow of a government, some centralized authority was needed, and Cromwell supplied it. Many who hated him as a regicide welcomed for a time a dictatorship that seemed the sole alternative to social and political dissolution. And even the army, when it heard that counterrevolution was brewing in Ireland and Scotland, was glad that his iron hand was ready to lead it against rebels who sought not a democratic utopia, but a restored and vengeful monarchy.